North West Mounted Police

Fort Macleod was founded in 1874 with the arrival of the North West Mounted Police, led by Colonel James F. Macleod. The NWMP force had been formed to protect Canadian sovereignty in the West. This interest was being threatened by the disruptive and unlawful practices of American whiskey traders who were trading deadly “firewater” for buffalo robes, wolf skins, and other items of value. The arrival of the NWMP put an end to the illicit trade in the Blackfoot, Blood, and Peigan Indian territory. Moreover, they established an official federal presence in the North West Territories of Canada, which were being eyed by the United States for possible annexation, and effectively opened the Canadian West to settlers. Fort Macleod was the first permanent police post in the British North-West.

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The original fort was hastily erected of log walls and rough planking, sod roofs and dirt floors. It was located on an island in the Old Man River valley, about one mile east of the present town. The island, known as Macleod Island, was chosen for the site of the fort upon the arrival of the NWMP in mid-October 1874, as it was both a picturesque and defensible location. However, it diminished in attractiveness with the arrival of spring flood waters, which rendered the site practically inaccessible. Nevertheless, a town quickly sprang up around the fort. By 1884, the NWMP relocated their quarters to the south bank of the Old Man River, west of the present Town of Fort Macleod. (Today, you may visit the partially reconstructed NWMP 1884 Barracks Provincial Historic Site which was officially Commissioned, under the Alberta 2005 Centennial Legacy Program, on August 25, 2005.)


The town soon followed, and incorporated in 1892. It became a bustling settlement, complete with a boardwalk-lined main street and a variety of commercial interests providing services to the region’s ranching industry. Development proceeded until 1906 when a fire destroyed most of the wood frame shops and businesses on Main Street. As a reaction to the fire, a bylaw was passed requiring future buildings to be constructed of stone or brick, thereby changing the look of Main Street forever.


People from around the world are part of the Fort Macleod community. In addition to our native people, and the original settlers from the British Isles, we have people with heritages from Germany, Holland, France, China, Japan, the Philippines and more.  Everyone brings their own culture to our town to make the tapestry richer.

During celebrations you may see teepees, ethnic dancers and experience foods from countries you have not yet been to.

Indigenous Population

This area has always been inhabited by the Blackfoot people.  The native population lived a nomadic lifestyle, following the food sources (buffalo) for the most part. The tribes did not always get along though. Many battles took place over the years.

The Blackfoot and the Cree were fighting to gain control of the Cypress Hills boundaries and in the fall of 1870 there was a battle between them called the “Battle of Belly River.” Big Bear and Little Pine led the Cree’s and attacked a Blood First Nations camp. The next day, well armed Peigans entered the battle and defeated the Cree, approximately 200-400 Crees died in the battle. Eventually the Cree and Blackfoot negotiated peace and access to the Cypress hills. This site is now known as Indian Battle Park in Lethbridge.

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Just west of Fort Macleod, is one of the world’s oldest, largest and best preserved buffalo jumps. For nearly 6,000 years, buffalo were stampeded over cliffs, then the native people would carve up the carcasses and drag the pieces to be butchered and processed in the camps set up on the nearby flats. Every piece of the buffalo was used for food, blankets or tools. In 1981 The Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump was designated a World Heritage Site ranking it among other world heritage monuments such as the Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge and the Galapagos Islands.


Golf Anyone?

In 1890, the first golf game was played in Fort Macleod – the first course to be built between Winnipeg and the West Coast.  Until 1924, it also acted as a pistol and rifle range.

The trail coming down the coulee by no. 1 tee box and which is still very visible on no. 9 fairway is part of the old wagon trail to Calgary and was used by settlers from the Porcupine hills as well.

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On no. 2 fairway, about 100 yards from the tee box are buffalo wallows visible, lucky for us these are not as deep as the sand traps made by sheep.

Cattle and buffalo bones are still to be found near no. 3 green, the cattle bones are from a herd that perished there during a blizzard of 1898, after being driven up here from Montana for pasturing.

In 1910 Dr. George Kennedy was president of the club and memberships cost $5.00 for men and $2.00 for ladies. In 1919 a member of the club, Thomas Gillespie, won the Alberta Open Championship and went on to win a Gold Medal at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland.

In 1924 H.R.H. the Prince of Wales played golf on this course. The present society of our 9 hole course was formed in 1936. Because of the historical significance, approximately half of the course is a historic designated area.


Building the Town

Beginning around 1911, Fort Macleod entered a period of optimism fueled by speculation that the town would become a pivotal railway center – the convergence point of no less than ten rail lines. Real estate prices soared, newly opened sub-divisions rapidly sold out, and commercial building flourished. A Board of Trade promotional pamphlet advertising Fort Macleod as the hub of southern Alberta and anticipating its ascendancy as a major business and transportation center, aided in attracting new settlers and businesses. Scottish, English, and Irish immigrants made up the majority of the town’s population. A small Chinatown was the focus of a vital Chinese community. Other nationalities including French, Italian and Dutch were represented on a lesser scale.

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Most of the two-storey brick and sandstone buildings lining the two main business thoroughfares were constructed during the pre-1914 boom years. Much of the material used was produced by local brickyards, lumber mills, and stone quarries. The masons and builders who erected the fine structures bestowed upon the town the legacy of building styles, traditional values, and craftsmanship brought with them from England. Residences of the 1897-1914 period show the same quality and attention to detail found in the downtown buildings, reflecting the availability of materials and craftsmen and an interest in predominant period styles.

Unfortunately, there was a marked slowdown in construction in 1914, primarily due to the outbreak of the First World War. Throughout the period of expansion, town officials borrowed extensively to provide the level of services expected by the optimistic towns-people. In 1924, the accumulated debt forced the town to accept a low interest loan with the caveat that the town refrain from borrowing money for improvements or expansion for fifty years. This commitment, combined with the depression of the 1920s and 30s and World War II, effectively halted significant new construction or development with the exception of the airport buildings constructed during World War II. As a result, Fort Macleod has been left with a collection of distinctive historic buildings – residential and commercial – which make an important contribution towards the preservation and interpretation of Alberta’s history.

A First Class Opera House

Construction on the Empress Theatre started in 1910 during the great boom period of Fort Macleod’s growth. The Empress was a franchise of the “Famous Players” chain and the fourth theatre in Fort Macleod at that time. Throughout its lifetime, the theatre has occupied a central location along Main Street.

The Empress Theatre has always played an important role in the community. Since the opening, it has served as a vaudeville house, concert hall, lecture hall, live theatre, and finally as a moving picture theatre.

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The tiny basement dressing rooms of the theatre showcase numerous performers who have passed over the stage of the Empress. Recorded on the walls are the names of such acts as “Texas Tony and his Wonder Horse Baby Doll/The Purple Sage Riders, 1935, from Isabella, California” and the “CPR Minstrels, 1923”. This tradition has carried on as evidenced by the names of contemporary performers written on the wood frame walls.

J.S. Lambert, a well-known contractor in Fort Macleod for T.B. Martin, the original owner, completed the Empress Theatre in 1912. The Lethbridge Herald carried the first announcement of a “new opera house” to be built in Fort Macleod in the January 1910 issue. It was to be a “first class theatre” with “every modern accessory”, orchestra pit and artistic furnishings.


World War II

Macleod area residents served in both World Wars and memorials were set up to commemorate those that lost their lives.
World War II, however, was a bustling time for the town, with a British Commonwealth Air Training station being set up. The administrative and operational control was the responsibility of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). The No. 7 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) began operation in December 1940, flying the twin engine Anson, and ran until November 1944.   (The high school athletic teams are known as the Flyers and Ansons to commemorate this piece of history.) After the war the station remained open and hosted No. 1 Repair Equipment and Maintenance Unit (1 REMU) which was responsible for storing and repairing RCAF aircraft. The station is now the Fort Macleod Airport. Many of the old buildings used during the BCATP days are still in use for local industry.

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Just sixteen kilometers (ten miles) east of Fort Macleod, another RCAF Station was located at Pearce. On March 17, 1942 twelve Canadian Pacific Railway coaches filled with 32 officers, 304 airmen staff plus pupils arrived from West Kirby, England. This Elementary Flying Training School was only in operation for five months. The official reason was to provide room for the expansion of air observer schools. Unofficially, the suspicion was that the famous southern Alberta winds were simply too difficult for novice pilots to deal with. Stearman biplanes and de Havilland Tiger Moth biplanes were the aircraft that flew out of this location for the short period of time.

Main Street Fort Macleod

In 1982, Fort Macleod’s Main Street was designated as one of only two Designated Historical Areas in the province of Alberta.  Most of the structures were originally built of wood, but after a fire razed most of the buildings, a bylaw was put in to restrict all buildings to be constructed of stone or brick.  As a result, these buildings still remain today showing our proud heritage.  Some buildings date back to 1878 and architecture from the 1910-1920 era is prevalent.  Many films have been shot using our main street as their stage.